Most mornings, as the sun starts to rise and cars fill the streets, Imani Murray takes a walk through her neighborhood.
Passing the brick businesses and street lamp banners that herald the North 24th Street corridor as a historic jazz district, the 22-year-old sees her family’s imprint on the area’s legacy of Black entrepreneurship. This is where her mother Deborah Murray has created paintings and community projects as a local artist. This is the street that her father Neville Murray, who passed away in May, “put his heart and soul into” throughout his life and during his tenure as director of Love’s Jazz and Arts Center.
Reaching a blue pillared, drive-thru windowed building at 2323 N. 24th St., Murray unlocks the door of her own investment for North Omaha— Ital Vital Living, a Black-women owned juice and smoothie store that opened up shop in June of 2021.
Before it became a drive-up storefront, Ital Vital Living began in 2019 when Murray started selling juices out of her home in North Omaha. Now, the shop’s menu offers dozens of cold-pressed juices, smoothie bowls topped with fruit and nuts and smoothie drinks of every color of the rainbow, sometimes layered with multiple flavors and served with an edible straw (if you’re lucky).
Finding a home base for her business in a brick-and-mortar shop on North 24th Street, while working with her mother and sister, has felt serendipitous to Murray.
“It just feels like you’re true to your roots,” Murray said. “You’re not running away from where you come from, and you’re sticking with your community.”
“It grew so naturally”
Murray’s juicing journey began in 2019, when she decided to lead a healthier lifestyle in connection with her Jamaican heritage by practicing “Ital”— the Rasta’s plant-based way of living rooted in a reverence for the livity, or life energy. Like veganism, Ital eliminates processed foods from diets, and Murray had to get creative with her meals.
She began creating juices and smoothies, and made a YouTube channel to document her progress. As she posted photos of her foods, people began to message her on social media, eager to try her colorful creations.
“It grew so naturally, you know?” said Murray. “First someone’s cousin wanted something, then the whole family wanted something.”
As messages for orders flooded in, she and her family realized they could build a business around juicing.
While Murray creates the juices and works on marketing and publicity, her older sister Latisha Taylor Burrell focuses on keeping business organized. Their mother Deborah Taylor is the creative director and artist. With help from Murray’s brother, Taylor painted the building’s colorful mural of a smiling woman with a bowl of fruit teetering on her head that has become Ital Vital Living’s signature logo.
“We were always close, but building an empire together has made us even closer, if that’s possible,” said Latisha Taylor Burrell, Murray’s older sister. “I now know my mom and sister in a way I didn’t know them before.”
Frieda Marion, a North Omaha resident and an entrepreneur providing home cleaning services, is one of many loyal customers who got hooked on Ital Vital Living products at the start. She got guidance from Murray on how to juice cleanse, and started to meal prep her weeks with enough juice and smoothies for each day.
“Imani’s food energizes you,” Marion said. “It makes you feel happy and actually satisfies you.”
At the shop’s grand opening on Juneteenth 2021, Marion was one of many customers who waited for a taste of Ital Vital Living from the now bright blue building that once was The Cooler Sno-Balls. The traffic-stopping line wrapped around the block all day long, but that came as no shock for Marion.
“Nothing Imani is doing is surprising me, because she is putting her soul into this,” Marion said. “She is healing the community. She’s pouring nourishment into it.”
“At the end of the day, it’s our community”
The cornerstone to the Ital Vital Living mission is Murray’s goal of bringing healthy, plant-based foods to her community.
“North Omaha is kind of a food desert,” Murray said. “There’s not a lot of resources here for the Black community.”
A long history of disinvestment in North Omaha, including racist housing policies like redlining, created the wealth disparities and lack of resources residents experience today. Initiatives like the North 24th Street Business Improvement District (BID), youth-serving organizations and entrepreneurs like Murray are part of the ecosystem of community members building reinvestment in the area.
“North O may have its problems, but at the end of the day, it’s our community,” Murray said. “And you can’t say you want your community to be better when you’re not providing solutions.”
When she started her own journey to eat healthier, she said it was other Black folks who gave her guidance, education and support to realize she could really lead a plant-based lifestyle. She wants to give that guidance back to others in North Omaha.
“Healthy food is normally very expensive, and not accessible,” she said. “I just want to bridge that gap to show we can have it in our community, it can be accessible for us.”
Murray also knows opening a business can be intimidating. While its necessary to have good capital and funding, they are privileges Black and brown entrepreneurs often aren’t afforded due to systemic inequities and racism. Despite the challenges, support and opportunities are out there for local entrepreneurs of color to get started, she said.
When her home kitchen got too crowded, Murray started creating her products in the commercial kitchen of No More Empty Pots, 8501 N. 30th St., an option for local food entrepreneurs who don’t have a space of their own. With help from Nebraska Enterprise Fund, an organization that provides services including business development and financing to micro and small businesses across the state, the Ital Vital Living team was able to secure funding and work through their business plan.
While running the business has not always been easy, Taylor Burrell has watched her younger sister conquer challenges and setbacks.
“She finds a way to come back and fight harder for the things she cares about,” Taylor Burrell said.
And the hard work has paid off.
Along with selling their products at the shop’s drive-thru window throughout the week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the Ital Vital Living team has sold products in pop-ups and vendors around the Omaha area. Facebook and Twitter posts with photos of Ital Vital Living’s multi-flavored, vibrant creations are flooded with comments from customers shouting-out their favorite dishes, or tagging friends to go visit the shop in North Omaha.
This Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., the shop will be open for a special event celebrating Native Omaha Days.
Since the shop’s opening in June, Taylor Burrell feels customers have walked away with more than just their smoothie bowl or bottled juice.
“We needed this,” Murray’s sister Latisha Taylor Burrell remembered customers saying as they pick up juices and smoothies in the drive-thru.
“We don’t have enough black-owned restaurants, thank you.”
“We needed healthy options.”
“I think we have inspired a lot of people to go after their dreams, help out in their community and go after what it is they want,” she said.
Murray said someday she wants to open more shops around Omaha, but for now the North Omaha location is home. It fits into the future she envisions for her community: more locally owned businesses, more after-school programs for kids, “more things that make a neighborhood feel like a neighborhood,” Murray said.
To get to that future, she hopes her story can move others to invest their passions and dreams into their communities.
“I think it’s just important to see it so you know you can do it,” Murray said. “I hope that we can be an inspiration to other people, so they can say, ‘Hey, I knew in Imani when she was selling out of her house, and now she has a shop! And that gives me more motivation to do it.’”
Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.